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Judge to rule Monday in defamation lawsuit

Thursday, January 24, 2013

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Henry County Circuit Court Judge David Williams said Wednesday he will decide by Monday whether to dismiss a civil lawsuit filed by one Patrick County official against another.

Williams was responding to a motion to dismiss the lawsuit that was filed by Patrick County Schools Superintendent Roger Morris alleging he was defamed by comments made by Patrick County Supervisor Lock Boyce.

Williams said he wanted more time to read the case law cited by attorneys in the civil case.

The suit, filed by Morris’ attorney, D. Stan Barnhill from the Roanoke firm of Woods Rogers PLC, seeks $10 million in compensatory and $350,000 in punitive damages for comments Boyce made about Morris beginning last summer.

During a hearing Wednesday, one of Boyce’s attorneys, Tom Strelka of the Roanoke law firm of Strickland Diviney Strelka, said Boyce was exercising his First Amendment rights in commenting on Morris. He also contended that Morris is a public figure — “probably the most public figure in Patrick County” — as is Boyce.

Strelka said comments by Boyce were of a “political perspective” that Morris diametrically opposes.

“The kitchen got a little hot for” Morris, Strelka said when asking for the case to be dismissed.

Barnhill did not concede that Morris is a public figure. He maintained the case meets the New York Times standard of malice — a landmark 1964 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Morris alleged in the suit — and Barnhill said in court — that Morris had an “unsoiled reputation in Patrick County and among his peers” until Boyce allegedly embarked on a “vendetta” last summer during a program on a Stuart radio station, which Boyce pays for, and other “contexts.”

“Such attacks have done severe damage to Morris’ reputation in the community,” his suit claims.

The suit claims the “vendetta” involved false allegations of “improper and criminal” credit card use during a Region 6 School Superintendents Meeting at Primland, “improper credit” card use at regional and state conferences, intimidation of Patrick County teachers and administrators, and “orchestrating alleged unfair treatment of certain retired” teachers through the modification of promised pension benefits. The suit added that Boyce sought to bring about Morris’ firing as school superintendent.

Morris’ 21-page suit includes an additional four pages of requests for certain documents from Boyce, including the name and address of “every person with whom you have discussed orally or in writing” any alleged acts or omissions of Morris since April 1, the substance of those discussions, their dates and additional information if those discussions were in writing.

The suit also asks that Boyce produce the names/addresses of people who he has discussed the use of credit cards by anyone associated with the school board; changes to the retired teachers pension plan; and intimidation of teachers or administrators. The suit further requests a summary of the contents of each discussion, whether it was in writing, and in what form (email, letter, etc.).

In addition to other requests, the suit also requests copies of all documents produced after April 1 that refer to Morris, the Patrick County School Board, the school budget, retired Patrick teachers, pension programs for teachers, Mary Sue Terry (who has represented the retired teachers involved in the school division’s early retirement incentive program), use of Patrick school credit cards and the intimidation of Patrick teachers or administrators.

Boyce said after the hearing that he is “guardedly optimistic” that the suit will be dismissed.

Morris did not attend Wednesday’s hearing.


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